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The making of an extraordinary verdict

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Was the election ever too close to call? What gave the DMK alliance the edge? What do the results signify for Tamil Nadu's political future? Yogendra Yadav tackles these and other questions.

One month ago The Hindu-CNN-IBN poll survey said the Tamil Nadu election was "too close to call." The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, which conducted the survey, said the two leading alliances were locked in a dead heat. One week after the results have been declared, this election appears "too close to call" for a very different reason. While we know the outcome, we are still not clear about what really caused it. About this extraordinary election there are many difficult questions that do not allow for simple answers. Here is an attempt to deal with some of them.

Was it actually a very close election?It did not appear so on the morning of May 11 as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led alliance raced to a comfortable majority. But at a second glance, the race appears much closer than it did appear then. If we look at the vote share, the gap between the two leading alliances was merely 4.7 percentage points.

The race was much closer than what the seats tally might indicate, closer than anything the State has witnessed in a long time. The All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam may be disappointed with its tally, but it is the highest that a losing party or alliance registered in the State's electoral history. The last time such a close contest took place in an Assembly election was in 1980, when the AIADMK defeated the DMK-Congress combine by less than four percentage points. Then the DMK-Congress combine won 68 seats.

Was it purely a victory of alliance arithmetic?Obviously, the DMK's broad-based alliance was the main factor behind its return to power. The party could not have won this election under its own steam. The rainbow coalition it led secured 57.4 per cent of the vote in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. Assuming that the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam's departure led to a small decline in its collective strength, the coalition still gave the DMK-led alliance a headstart in the electoral race.

The advantage was not irreversible, and Ms. Jayalalithaa came close to reversing it. The series of polls conducted by the School of Media Studies, Loyola College, Chennai, showed that the DMK-led alliance was rapidly losing its lead over the AIADMK since the Lok Sabha elections. By the time The Hindu-CNN-IBN pre-poll survey was conducted, the two were neck and neck; the AIADMK alliance may have even established a tiny lead.

What happened after that had nothing to do with alliance arithmetic. The DMK-led alliance improved its popularity. Chemistry helped the DMK alliance in good measure. The alliance effect was a necessary but not sufficient condition for victory.

Did Ms. Jayalalithaa err in her alliance decisions?Given the thin margin of victory, her decision to exchange the Bharatiya Janata Party for the MDMK was less than wise. In retrospect, it appears that she overestimated the MDMK's mass base, and Mr. Vaiko's capacity to transfer votes to her party.

A careful analysis of The Hindu-CNN-IBN exit poll suggests that the MDMK could transfer only 24 per cent of the votes it polled as a DMK ally in 2004 to the AIADMK-led front; as many as 66 per cent of the MDMK's voters stayed with the DMK-led alliance. No wonder, the success ratio of the MDMK candidates was only 17 per cent, compared to the more respectable 32 per cent for those of the AIADMK. The MDMK's share of votes in the constituencies it contested was less than 38 per cent, three points below that of the AIADMK.

The decision to break ties with the BJP is also open to question. The BJP's two per cent vote share, tiny by itself, could have made a difference in some constituencies. If the votes of the BJP are merged with that of AIADMK-led alliance, its tally would go up to 84 seats. But such a calculation does not take into account the likely loss of minority votes for the AIADMK. Even so, an alliance with the BJP would have narrowed the gap of defeat.

Was Vijayakant a decisive factor?He was not, but he could have been. It was remarkable that a newcomer polled 8.5 per cent of the popular vote. He has strong support among young voters and is therefore better placed for growth. But there is scarce evidence to support the popular impression that he caused more damage to the AIADMK than to the DMK. In fact, the evidence collected by the CSDS shows that less than 25 per cent of his voters supported the AIADMK-led alliance in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections; well over two-thirds of those who voted for the DMDK cast their ballots in favour of the DMK alliance two years ago. If anything, the DMK would have improved on its victory margin had the DMDK not been in the fray.

Vijayakant could have been a decisive factor had he aligned with the AIADMK. If the DMDK's votes were to be merged with that of the AIADMK alliance, the result would have been the opposite of the actual outcome. The AIADMK alliance would have won 159 seats against only 74 for the DMK alliance. One could justifiably argue that all those who voted for the DMDK would not have voted for the AIADMK. But such losses would have been compensated by the "bandwagon" effect of such an alliance.

Did the tsunami relief make a difference?The AIADMK Government's handling of tsunami relief won widespread applause within and without the State. The Hindu-CNN-IBN pre-poll survey found popular approval on this score. But did it make a difference to the electoral outcome? The evidence suggests that it did make a difference, though not as much as Ms. Jayalalithaa would have liked. A quick analysis reveals that the AIADMK alliance won 12 of the 39 constituencies that were affected by the tsunami. It also secured a swing of eight percentage points in these areas since 2004, much higher than the swing in the rest of the State. The AIADMK alliance performed better in tsunami-affected districts such as Chennai, Cuddalore and Thanjavur.

Was there a late swing?Did this election change course in the final stages, as The Hindu-CNN-IBN surveys suggested? Or, was the DMK alliance ahead all along? The polls we conducted throw some light on this. They show that more voters in Tamil Nadu made up their minds at the last minute than in other States a state of affairs that could allow for a late swing.

Fortunately, we have independent corroboration from another source. Goodwill Communications carried out a series of private polls under the direction of Rev. Jegath Gaspar Raj and Dr. Joe Arun. Their first poll, carried out just before The Hindu-CNN-IBN pre-poll, showed the AIADMK alliance leading by more than five percentage points. Their second poll, conducted just after our pre-poll survey, showed that the DMK alliance had reversed the situation and established a lead of more than five percentage points. Their final survey, conducted a week before the polling day, predicted that the DMK-led alliance had increased its lead to more than eight percentage points. Even assuming some over-reading of the DMK alliance's strength, the findings suggest that the contest was close at one stage that is, before the DMK established its lead.

Why did the change take place?This, of course, is the million-dollar question. And one that we cannot fully answer. All we know is that the turn in the DMK's fortunes took place around the time the campaigning began. Clearly, it has something to do with the campaign and the manifestos.

The vigorous campaign launched by Mr. Karunanidhi did allay voter anxieties about his ability to shoulder the burden of running the government. But more than anything else, it is the DMK's manifesto that appeared to have made the difference. The promise of rice at Rs. 2 a kg and the waiver of farmer loans struck an instant chord. The promises made by the AIADMK seemed less credible. This is perhaps why the AIADMK could not establish a lead in its traditional constituency: the poor and the very poor. This election could have revolved more around poverty and unemployment than anyone has cared to notice.

Will this change the future of Tamil Nadu politics?The DMK's unwillingness to accept the pre-election alliance as the post-election coalition has resulted in a single party taking over the reins of government. But this verdict reaffirms that alliances are here to stay. However, the line up of the alliances may undergo a significant change. The rise of the DMDK and the relative decline of the PMK and the MDMK have paved the way for a realignment of political forces. The Congress is something of a declining force and may lose its pivotal role to new forces such as the DMDK, the rise of which is a sign that the voter is tiring of the usual options. The subtle but significant change on the electoral ground is likely to have its effect on the long-term politics of the State. The AIADMK's entry into the traditional DMK stronghold of Chennai (as well as the northern region) and the DMK's spectacular show in the Deep South (a traditional AIADMK stronghold) are signs of this shift. While the DMK may have done relatively well in its stronghold in the Cauvery delta and held on to the North Central region, there are subtle shifts here too. We are witnessing a slow but sure change in the political geography of the State, where no party can take any region for granted.

There are similar shifts in the political orientation of social communities with some traditional vote banks being eroded. Mudaliars in the Upper North region have moved away from the DMK, the Vanniyars are no longer the vote bank of the PMK, the Thevar votes have shifted along regional lines (instead of going entirely with the AIADMK), and different Dalit communities are making strategic choices in different regions. The familiar, iron-like grip of the two Dravidian parties over Tamil politics is loosening, opening up a wide range of political possibilities.

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